Contributor: Nicholas Coney | Reviewer: Ann Choe | Date: 2021-11-11
Have you ever thought when reading a novel why in your head certain characters speak in a certain way? If you haven’t, it might be because doing is second nature to us. This underlying system that shapes how we associate certain language styles with certain indivduals is known as indexical valence, and it comes from our experiences in life and the people we have encountered.
So, imagine being in a language arts class where you read stories containing characters whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds are different than your own. How would you read those characters?
LeBlanc wanted to understand this in relation to Pedagogic Literary Narration, a technique that encourages both teacher and students to read literature aloud and comment on the text to help students grasp the complexity of it. He examined this at a 12th grade English Language Arts classroom located in rural Canada.
Ms. Jolie – (Ms. Jolie: “Hi!”) – is the teacher of the class. In the article, we hear from 6 of the 8 participants.
There’s Farid from Syria, Liya from Ethiopia, Samantha from Canada, Corey also from Canada, Li Jie from China, and Jonathan from Australia.
Over the course of four weeks, the class read the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Ms. Jolie introduced the character Blanche DuBois in terms of geography (“from Mississippi”) and class (“had heaps of money”). Most likely, other North American stereotypes of the Southern Belle influenced Ms. Jolie’s understanding of the character.
In the study, LeBlanc had students listen to a recording from class of Ms. Jolie doing the voice of Blanche DuBois.
“I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
Ms. Jolieʻs stylization of the Southern Belle is quite familiar for many North American readers and listeners.
We can hear this portrayal of Blanche DuBois in the Warner Brothersʻ 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. We can also find references of how the Southern Belle stereotypically speaks as with Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind.
However, that’s not necessarily how the students’ heard their teacher portray Blanche DuBois. LeBlanc noticed that students were not familiar with the Southern Belle trope or the play before reading it in class. In their interviews, LeBlanc asked what sort of character they heard Ms. Jolie portraying.
In terms of time periods:
“Like she was from the 1960s” (Samantha)
“She sounded like she was someone from the 80s or 90s” (Liya)
In terms of location:
“She had a New Orleans sort of accent. Like she’s from a regular farm in the US.” (Jonathan)
“I feel like it’s kind of Western” (Corey)
“I feel like it’s more country-like” (Samantha)
And in terms of character traits
“She tries to be all innocent and pure. And when people are innocent and pure, they always come across as like delicate.” (Samantha)
“Very blunt and straightforward.” (Li Jie)
So, it’s clear that the class had different interpretations of Ms. Jolie’s characterization of Blanche DuBois, some not quite the same as Ms. Jolie’s interpretation of the character.
But how about doing voices? Let’s listen to Li Jie do the voice of Blanche DuBois:
Li Jie: “((feminine voice)) Oh, I feel so good and cool and rested.”
Samantha: “Do you? Blanche?”
Li Jie: “((feminine voice)) Yes I do (.) so refreshed.”
How Li Jie stylizes Blanche’s voice reflects how he interprets the character. During his interview, Li Jie commented that Ms. Jolie’s stylization of Blanche sounded like a “Western cowboy, cowgirlish” – a possible reason why he spoke with a Southern accent. He also commented that Ms. Jolie’s stylization of Blanche sounded “very blunt and straightforward,” and even explained that he viewed the character as “arrogant,” “not a good person,” and “prideful.” However, we cannot ignore the possibility that the class probably influenced Li Jie’s stylization of Blanche. He had heard Ms. Jolie do the voice of the character and enjoyed eliciting laughter from the class, all are reasons why he possibly did the voice of the character the way he did.
As educators and/or learners, we need to be aware that our backgrounds can influence how we interpret a piece of literary work, especially one of a different linguistic, cultural background. At the same time, we can also embrace this linguistic, cultural diversity in the classroom as it can lead to some creative interpretations and voices of literary works.
Original Text: LeBlanc, R. B. (2021). Doing voices: Stylization, literary interpretation, and indexical valence. Linguistics and Education, 64, 100949-. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2021.100949
Voice acting assistance from:
Herman Lim Bin Adam Lim